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Essay evaluation criteria explained - and more!

At the moment, our volunteers are grading the 140 essays which have been submitted for the first round 2022/2023 in accordance with the criteria of the International Philosophy Olympiad. Read about essay evaluation and other aspects of teaching philosophy in the Journal of Didactics of Philosophy.

Teachers discussing essay grades at the International Philosophy Olympiad 2018 in Montenegro.

The Journal of Didactics of Philosophy (JDPh) is a peer-reviewed academic journal established in 2017. It is devoted to research on the teaching and learning of philosophy. One of its editors is Dr. Jonas Pfister, the founder of the Swiss Philosophy Olympiad. Articles submitted may be about any level of education, however the main focus is on high school philosophy. All volumes can be downloaded in PDF format on the website:



JDPh contains articles on a wide variety of topics which may be of interest to philosophy teachers, from how to integrate debate or digital methods in class, to reviews of helpful books to insights into philosophy education in different countries. In 2020, a special issue of JDPh about the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO) was published. A number of teachers involved in the worldwide essay competition discussed the didactic opportunities and challenges of the IPO.



As an appendix to an article about essay evaluation, Jonas Pfister contributed the following brief guide to grading at IPO, which may be helpful to anyone seeking further insight into the criteria employed not only at IPO, but also on the national level of the Swiss Philosophy Olympiad.


How to Evaluate a Philosophy Essay at the International Philosophy Olympiad:
A Very Short Guide for Evaluators

This is a very short guide for evaluators (delegation leaders and teachers) who are members of the International Jury at the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO) and especially for those who are members for the first time. This guide is not part of the official regulations and it does not state rules. First, it explains some of the fundamentals of the competition and the evaluation procedure. Second, it elucidates the meaning of the five criteria of evaluation. Third, it ends with some remarks about discussing essays with other evaluators.

1. Fundamentals of the competition and evaluation procedure

The IPO has among its objectives to promote philosophical education at secondary level around the world and to increase the interest of high school students in philosophy. The awarding of medals and honorable mentions to the best contestants of the competition serves these objectives. It gives a motivating feedback to the winners and it helps to promote philosophy education in the countries to which the winners return.

As part of the International Jury, you will be asked to assess a number of essays in order to help determine who will be awarded a medal or honorable mention. You will only read a very small number of all the essays in the competition. The vast majority of the essays you will not get to read. And this leads to an important point to keep in mind: The essays you will not read might be of lower or of better quality than the essays you will read, and you will not know whether the first or the second applies.

The statutes of the IPO determine that the Steering Board decides on the distribution of prizes. Since the time for the evaluation of the essays by the members of the Steering Board is
limited the number of medals is limited to a maximum of about 20 essays. In the later years, it has been a practice for the International Jury to make a proposal about which essays should be taken into consideration for a medal and also a proposal about which essays should be awarded an honorable mention.

2. The five criteria of evaluation

The essays are to be evaluated according to the following five criteria of evaluation: relevance to the topic, philosophical understanding of the topic, persuasive power of argumentation, coherence, and originality. Their status is different. And each of them may be interpreted differently.


The criterion of relevance is in some sense the most fundamental. If an essay is off topic, then it should not get an award even if it satisfies the other criteria perfectly. For example, if the quotation is about a topic in political philosophy and the essay is only about epistemology, then it is off topic. This does not mean, of course, that an essay about a topic in political philosophy may not also contain epistemological arguments.


The criterion has another, less fundamental application: An essay that is on topic may still contain parts which are less relevant or not relevant to the question the author has chosen to answer. Ceteris paribus, the less irrelevant parts the essay contains, the better it is. 



The criterion of coherence may mean different things. First, it can mean that the essay has a clear and logical structure. Second, it can mean that the terms are clear and used consistently throughout the essay. Third, it can mean that the essay contains claims that are coherent with each other, i.e. which do not contradict each other. The criterion should arguably be considered in all three of these meanings.

Philosophical understanding of the topic

The criterion of philosophical understanding of the topic is allegedly the one about which there are most disagreements among members of the International Jury because it is based on one’s understanding of philosophy, and such understanding, as we know, can differ more or less strongly amongst philosophers. Nevertheless, there is consensus among members of the International Jury about some points. First, this criterion applies to the student’s understanding of the topic, not necessarily to the topic as it is understood by the author or by the contemporaries of the author. The student may give a correct interpretation of the quotation and this will count as philosophical understanding. But the student may also develop her own thoughts based on the quotation which are not in accordance with what the author of the quotation may have originally meant, and the student may thereby very well show philosophical understanding. Second, knowledge of philosophical claims from the history of philosophy may show philosophical understanding of the topic only if these claims fit into the argumentation of the essay. Superficially reproducing well known philosophical claims or, worse, simple "name dropping" does not, by itself, show philosophical understanding. It is only when the claims are part of an argumentation that they count as philosophical understanding of the topic. Deeper philosophical understanding is shown by the correct and detailed explanation of philosophical claims as well as by the introduction and analysis of concepts relevant to the topic.

Power of argumentation

The criterion of the power of argumentation presupposes that the essay argues for a claim (or for several claims). If the essay does not present a strong philosophical argument it is not worthy of an award unless it has some other striking feature such as a finely worked out original viewpoint or a careful conceptual analysis. Given that the essay argues for a claim, the power of the argumentation may vary quite strongly. The power of argumentation is shown in how well the student develops the arguments and in how good the arguments as such are. Furthermore, it can also be seen in the introduction of possible objections and counter arguments, and in how well these are discussed. 


The criterion of originality is allegedly the most subjective of the five criteria. It means that the essay shows the development of the thoughts of the author and is not simply a repetition of what one can find in textbooks. The criterion of originality does not mean that the essay needs to argue for an unexpected or novel claim. 

As has been explicated above, the criteria cannot be applied independently of each other. You are not required to give equal weight to all five of them. When evaluating an essay, it is important to keep in mind the essay as a whole. One useful heuristic method for the general assessment as well as for remembering the content of the essay is to state its main question and to summarize the answer it gives in one sentence.

3. Discussing essays with other evaluators

It is worth discussing the essay with other evaluators. First, because it allows you to put your own assessment into perspective. Second, because it may help you to see aspects of the essay you may have overlooked. Third, because it is fun to exchange your thoughts with other philosophers.

It is possible that you will disagree on the correct assessment of an essay with another member of the jury. In general, this will be a disagreement among peers as you are both trained philosophers and the arguments of the essays usually do not require detailed knowledge of a particular field of philosophy – although it has to be mentioned that there are exceptions to this, as some previous medal essays have shown. It is itself a philosophical question of how to understand disagreements among peers. There are two opposing views. According to the first one, two parties may disagree and retain their rationality, and according to the second one, any rational disagreement indicates an error on at least one side. This epistemological debate cannot be settled here. As practical advice, I would suggest this: be open-minded, and take the disagreement as an opportunity to learn about the other, yourself, and philosophy!


Pfister, Jonas (2020): Evaluation and Grading of Philosophy Essays at the International Philosophy Olympiad, Journal of Didactics of Philosophy 4(3), 165–176. 

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